President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
October 9, 2002
Opening Exercises was held this year on September 11, 2002. As
usual, the event was well attended, especially by incoming
undergraduates, and spirits were high. In the evening, a commemorative
assembly was held marking the anniversary of the tragic events of that
day a year ago. What follow are excerpts from my address at Opening
Exercises (the full text of the address is available in the Selected Speeches section of this site). Remarks at the commemorative assembly can be viewed online as well.—S.M.T.
When I look at the members of the Class of 2006 gathered today, and consider what is in store for you, I am filled with envy, pure and simple, because you are about to embark on four years that are certain to be among the most important and exciting in your lives. You will identify the passions that will shape your life, you will make friends who will last a lifetime, and you will make choices that will help to define the kind of person you will be. You will explore the universe of ideas, which are the true coin of the realm in a university, in a free and unfettered way that may never be available to you again.
Each of you is in charge of deciding how—and how fully—you will make use of the resources that have been assembled at Princeton to make it possible for you to obtain the finest undergraduate education in the world. How you do this—through the many choices you will make in the next four years—will determine whether you will be able to say, as so many others have before you, “Princeton changed my life.” To say that honestly will require making bold and adventurous choices in every aspect of your experience here.
Our distribution requirements, our freshman seminar program, our emphasis on independent work are all designed to widen your intellectual horizons so that you will leave here a cosmopolitan (a word I take from Professor Anthony Appiah, who joined us this year)—meaning a person whose spirit is informed by a deep understanding and appreciation of the world in all of its manifold subtlety and complexity. The most difficult political, technological, ethical and social problems facing today’s world will be resolved only by intelligent and well-trained minds that can think critically and decisively using understanding that draws on many fields and transcends disciplinary boundaries. Let me illustrate this point with two examples that have been greatly in the news in recent months.
In my own field, molecular genetics, the successful completion of sequencing the first human genome, like all scientific progress, has created the potential for both good and ill depending on how we as a society use the enormous amount of information that is being generated about our genetic makeup. . . . We need to make the best use of this information for the good of society, and to reach the right resolutions, we need scientists who are comfortable with ethical issues, ethicists and lawyers who understand science, and politicians with ethical sensibilities and wide-ranging intellects who are capable of listening with well prepared minds and then acting on a vision that sees farther than the next election.
Consider another critically important issue. The horrendous events exactly one year ago, and the anthrax outbreak that came shortly in their wake, left this country feeling more vulnerable to external attack than it has since the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960’s. No one questions the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens from terrorism, but it is important that this be done in a way that respects the principles articulated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that define us as a free democracy. We have set very high standards for ourselves as a nation, and our standards are most severely tested when reprehensible enemies commit brutal crimes. We are forced to ask questions such as: How long is it appropriate to hold accused terrorists in Guantanamo Bay without the right to habeas corpus? How should we assess the arguments for racial profiling in a society built on respect for the privacy and dignity of each individual and a presumption of innocence? . . . Finding the right answers will require proficiency in languages and knowledge about other cultures and religions. In other words, in seeking answers we need to look to cosmopolitan individuals who have experienced a broad liberal arts education of the kind that you are about to pursue.
As you begin your journey, I hope you keep in mind that you are preparing yourself for an uncertain future, and that the best preparation is to develop habits of mind that lead you to test the things you think you DO know and be curious about the things you do NOT know. Your best insurance against uncertainty and complexity is to develop an insatiable appetite for new ideas and an instinct for informed fair-minded reasoning as your first line of defense.
As you look around this chapel, I hope you will appreciate that we have chosen you and your classmates with enormous care. You are drawn from every corner of the globe, from different ethnic groups, different religions and different socio-economic backgrounds. Seven percent of you are the first member of your family to attend college. This range of experiences and perspectives, my friends, was on purpose! Please avoid the natural tendency to seek out those who are most like you. While it is a perfectly understandable reaction to an unfamiliar environment, it is also one of the most effective ways to narrow your horizons and to reduce your opportunity to become a true cosmopolitan.
Let me conclude by saying that I hope each of you is filled with a sense of excitement today. I am sure that I speak for the entire university community when I say that we are eagerly anticipating the choices you will make. We look forward to witnessing and sharing in your journey to become the Great—and cosmopolitan—Princeton Class of 2006.